You are here

No Planning Necessary - The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley

When a pack of cyclists encounters a headwind, no one directs each rider to move into the slipstream of the rider in front. Each cyclist does it automatically because each will save energy by not having to push into the wind unaided. What about the lead cyclist? An unspoken rule allows him to take his pull at the front for a few seconds then peel off and move to the back of the pack. When seen from above it looks like a system designed by an aerodynamics engineer, but each rider is just trying not to get dropped. The process is completely self-organized and emerges via the laws of aerodynamics and social cooperativeness.

In “The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge,” the brilliant evolutionary biologist Matt Ridley demonstrates that this self-emergent process is all around us. Change, he argues, not only happens from the bottom-up in nature, as described inDarwin’s theory, but it occurs in everything from genes, morality, culture, the economy, technology, the mind, personality, education, leadership, religion, money and the Internet.

“Far more than we like to admit, the world is to a remarkable extent a self-organizing, self-changing place,” Mr. Ridley writes. “Skeins of geese form Vs in the sky without meaning to, termites build cathedrals without architects, bees make hexagonal honeycombs without instruction, brains take shape without brain-makers, learning can happen without teaching, political events are shaped by history rather than vice versa.”

This penetrating book is Mr. Ridley’s best and most important work to date, managing to integrate multiple sciences with political and economic theory, cultural studies and social policy. On the latter, he convincingly shows that generally the best thing we can do to make the world a better place is . . . absolutely nothing. In most cases the best outcome will happen if government gets out of the way and lets people pursue their own needs, interests and pleasures. That’s because most change in most areas of human endeavor comes from people just doing their thing, not by design. Mr. Ridley describes this gradual change as “evolution” and in doing so returns to the word’s original embryological meaning of “unfolding” (as in an embryo’s development): “cumulative change from simple beginnings,” and “change that comes from within, rather than being directed from without.”

THE EVOLUTION OF EVERYTHING

By Matt Ridley 
Harper, 360 pages, $28.99

The reason we have a hard time grasping this simple concept is that our minds evolved to see design and planning all around us, which we intuit as originating with a designer at the top. Thus applying evolution to everything is deeply counterintuitive, because whenever we think “someone should do something about X” our minds automatically turn to a religious deity, a political leader, a government agent, a corporate CEO, an organization’s director or an institution’s governing board. Mr. Ridley insists that it’s actually parishioners, employees and members who bring about the most change.

Mr. Ridley’s chapter on “the evolution of personality” illustrates the point. Blank-slate theories of personality, intelligence, gender and sexuality, which have dominated the social sciences until very recently, insisted that parents, schools and culture were the dominant shapers of these most central characteristics of who we are. Therefore if we want to improve the nation we must design better conditions in which to raise our children. But the overwhelming scientific evidence shows that these traits come mostly from within, not without, and thus social engineering schemes to make people smarter, happier or anything else are destined to fail.

Mr. Ridley is not advocating for anarcho-capitalism or any other version of a lawless society. Just as cyclists require some overarching rules—you can’t draft behind a car—societies and organizations require some rules by which to play and punishments for cheaters. But he warns that the moment you establish a governing body of any sort, it has a propensity to grow into Brobdingnagian proportions. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, for example, now exceeds 169,000 pages and is growing about 20% per decade, while government spending has risen from 7.5% of GDP in 1913 to 34% in 2015. The rub is in finding the right balance between top-down design and bottom-up freedom. Mr. Ridley argues persuasively that we need to dial back command-and-control and ratchet up freedom-and-autonomy.

Examples abound in Mr. Ridley’s analysis. To cite a few: “The growth of technology, the sanitation-driven health revolution, the quadrupling of farm yields so that more land can be released for nature—these were largely emergent phenomena, as were the Internet, the mobile phone revolution, and the rise of Asia.”

Such examples are obvious once they are explained (which Mr. Ridley does exquisitely), but our intuitions lead us to overemphasize design and direction. “Thus, it seems that generals win battles; politicians run countries; scientists discover truths; artists create genres; inventors make breakthroughs; teachers shape minds; philosophers change minds; priests teach morality; businessmen lead businesses; conspirators cause crises; gods make morality.” Sic semper tyrannis.

Mr. Ridley’s opus will not be well received by those who believe they are smarter than the masses, who think that most people are not capable of self-governance, who fancy themselves as intelligent social designers, or who simply have a hard time imagining non-command-and-control solutions to problems. Yet there is something profoundly democratic and egalitarian—even anti-elitist—in this bottom-up approach: Everyone can have a role in bringing about change regardless of intelligence, education, family background, socioeconomic class, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any other category by which we are wont to divide ourselves. In self-organizing emergent systems anyone can participate and make a difference. What will you do?